The moderatorial sermon preached at the annual Church of
Scotland service in the Crypt, The Palace of Westminster, 1st December 1987.
For those findeth wisdom findeth life, and shall obtain
favour of the Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul:
all they that hate me love death. Proverbs 8. v. 35-36
Since the time, at least, of the government of the Greek
city states, it has been recognised that the wisest of any community avoid
participation in the direction of political affairs. Plato declared that the
wisest should be compelled to take up this essential function but even the
wisest conscript would inevitably lack the necessary will energy for the
requisite persistence which is an indispensable characteristic of those in
whose hands He the well-being of the people.
Thus, it has to be accepted that the one who enters into
the sphere of statesmanship is neither the wisest nor the wisest fool in
Christendom. Having said this, however, it has never been the expectation of
any nation to have its parliament peopled with those merely representing the
highest common factor or the lower common denominator of the nation as far
as such members' personal attributes are concerned.
Deep within the heart of each Scot, I cannot speak for
any other, there is a longing for each of you to appropriate to yourselves
wisdom. This wisdom will not only inspire you with a renewed vision and
widened horizons but it will discover a creative response in our people for
the renaissance of the Scottish nation.
Yet, as the Bible reminds us, wisdom is not a
characteristic which can be read up, or even taught or learned - although
the wiser of us are in despair at the decline in the status of philosophy
which is being further undermined by the economic handcuffing of the
humanities in the universities.
No. Wisdom is not intellectual achievement. It has to be
seen as a self-disclosure by God of his transcendent purposes for his whole
creation. We recognise that we are neither polymaths, omnicompetents, nor
even well-informed specialists. Rather, we are those who seek coordinated
concepts as a guide to the multifarious situations which can either be
problems because of our ignorance, or opportunities if give the wisdom,
raising us above uncritically received dogma, existential naive solution,
pompous pratings and foppish insensitivity. As we grow in wisdom, we are
aware that the emerging purposes of God cannot be measured merely within a
humanly predetermined time scale, nor is such wisdom necessarily immediately
recognised by the majority who may even be slowly strangling the life out of
themselves as they are dragged down bound to self-made, slow destruction.
Wisdom is therefore a gift of God to the mind and to the
heart which gathers to itself all those who can transcend the self-centred,
the outmoded, the doctrinaire and the unthinking.
Cruise O'Brien, in his contribution to the perceptive
volume, The Future of Modern Humanities, helps us in this matter with
his soliloquy on Imagination and Polities'. This paper, although written
twenty years ago, is a needful message for us. It is not without interest
that Professor John Mclntyre, Dean of the Order of the Thistle, has made an
important contribution to imagination and theology very recently.
Imaginativeness, or as the Germans put it, Fantasie,
is the outworking of one of the great impetuses of wisdom on humanity.
As the mind, with complete openness, apprehends the possibilities, hopes and
desires within any human situation, it is, thereafter, intuitively directed
to creative thoughtful action by wise inspiration. If such an activity is
recognised as wise within a wide circle, there is not only support and
participation, but a massive contribution of communal wisdom is forthcoming
which assures long-term well-being.
God is always challenging us to discover imaginativeness
which can only be inspired by him when we self-transcend and give attention
to all sources of wisdom. "Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth
her voice? She stands at the top of high places, by the way in the places of
the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming
in at the doors. Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of
One of the most insidiously destructive, conditioned
reflexes of contemporary society is the view that all in authority are
incompetent fools, and politicians are high in such a list of negation.
There are, of course, reasons for this 'Decline of Individual Authority' as
described by John Carroll, in Puritanism, Paranoid, Remissive: A
Sociology of Modern Culture, but his diagnosis does not go to the heart
of the problem.
Those of us who have the rare privilege of coming from a
Celtic, cultural background know the high place which was given to the wise,
irrespective of their place in a township. This tradition is still
recognisable in the continuation of 'the men' in the life of the church in
the Outer Isles. The acknowledgement of wisdom has therefore not to be
sought only in the ruling or higher echelons of society but rather to be
observed as a grace gift distributed to men and women throughout the
community, which if neglected and unharnessed will leave the nation
This innate reservoir of national wisdom only issues
forth when the varied social groupings are modest and sensitive enough to
pay attention to those who have a specific gift of enlightenment. This is
undoubtedly greatly needed within political life at the present time. It is
no easy task. Much patience is required. The wise often remain silent amid
so many current raucous declamations. Their voices are avoided by the media
which tends to wallow in the hackneyed cliche and the slick, superficial
slogan. Patient sensitivity in discerning one's own wisdom and that of the
other is the foundation of social stability and communal contentment.
History has taught us powerfully and terribly of the deadly harvest of the
It must also be borne in mind that the wise in our small
nation of five million do not see room for a "them and us" mentality. Wisdom
is not to be revealed in national schizophrenia. Wisdom is a health-bringing
gift which points us all beyond our small individualistic or partisan
minority group expectations, which are manifest in fragmentation and
divisiveness to an all-embracing unity which alone can be the source of
national renewal. This is, however, never totally within our grasp although
we need not cease from having great expectations.
Thus, ultimately, wisdom is always apprehended by
imperfect human beings and such an apprehension is inevitably also
restricted by our own world of experience and language. It is therefore
never a perfect wisdom nor an infallible pronouncement. Human words can only
express that which is within the givenness of our environment. Wisdom, the
supernatural gift, is impaired and restricted by our very humanity.
Having said this, we have nevertheless to be ever on our
guard in the way in which we express our glimpses of wisdom. The reception
of true wisdom brings with it a humble awareness of its fragility. We know
that the nation is weary of inane incantations, repetitive rhetoric, and
empty ideological or outward dogmatic vocabulary. Most will not listen. The
judgement is not to be given against such citizens when almost all
sense has been drowned by the overwhelming waves of contemporary verbal
This indeed calls for imagination, the closest handmaid
of wisdom. All, who have known wisdom's inspiration, experience too the
agony of finding the appropriate word, the decisive moment and the attentive
ear. This is all the more harrowing when that God-given insight can only
relate to some split second when we are at the turning tide of some small or
great happening into which we have been drawn. The word so often fails, the
moment passes, or the ear is deaf. Our taper light of wisdom is snuffed out.
The imaginativeness which we lacked was the source of our sorrow. We realise
on reflection that we did not sacrifice some activity for the silence and
the thoughtfulness into which would have blossomed the needful imagination.
Dreams can become expectations and expectations reality if we can be but
The quandary common to theologians and politicians is the
finding of quietness to allow the wisdom of God to unfold. Much of our
energies are dissipated by the defence of half-truths and the uncritical
acceptance of much which has influenced us: particularly those which affect
us quite unconsciously. This is especially tragic, for it is from the deep
depths of our minds that so often wisdom can arise, if not thrust down by
the unmanifested nonsense already residing there.
We have to begin again to realise that we are all on the
search for the hidden wisdom of God which he providentially reveals in
mentally appropriate measure to the human spirit. If we are aware of this,
we cease to assume that the other, who thinks in different ways from
ourselves, is capable of participating with us in the ever continuous search
Every human institution, and above all any parliament,
has, as its greatest goal, such an achievement: to bring forth, from the
diversity of ordinary human beliefs and ideals, a generally accepted wisdom
which will inspire, encourage and guide the nation to wholeness and
wholesomeness. If such a concept does not provide the inner mental and
spiritual propulsion to motivate and direct those who seek to lead the
nation, then nothing can be done to change much that appears as prosaic
The growth of social inertia among us has been one of the
direct results of what so many see as incredible politics lacking any real
inspiration. If this inner immigration continues, the warnings of Toynbee's
analysis of the causes of a civilisation's decline will be re-enacted before
our very eyes. Wisdom can provide the re-energizing which our society
requires immediately and, while it is not given in large measure to many,
those who are seen to have this enriching gift - which appears in very
different, and often unexpected places - must be encouraged to pursue their
As we have heard from Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians,
'Speak every man truth with his neighbour for we are members one of
another'. You are indeed so named. No untruth can be the
vehicle of wisdom, it is in fact immediately destroyed in the presence of
deceit. There can be no credibility gap among you, or your wisdom, which we
all need, will not be yours to impart.
We all look for a new atmosphere in political life; a new
sense of vocation which can arise only when you seek after wisdom and
acknowledge it wherever it appears and however it is conveyed.
Remember the words of Jesus, 'For by thy words shall thou
be justified and by thy words shalt thou be condemned'. Jesus is not talking
here of the irrelevant banalities which, although of frequent appearance,
neither convince nor influence anyone and are soon forgotten. It is the
powerful insight conveyed with wisdom, conviction, clarity and integrity:
the wise word dovetailed into history which can never be separated from the
achievement. In spite of numerous failures of our own making, or lasting
disappointments caused even by our friends, many of us can rejoice that
wisdom has guided us and the words which were spoken have been justified and
it will always be a moment for remembrance. There are, however, the other
words of false promise, of reckless rhetoric, of unfounding denigration, and
of unworthy imputation which have left a dark stain on the minds and hearts
of those who were awaiting wisdom. These words we may strive to forget but
we are indeed by them for decades condemned. Such words are not forgotten.
Wisdom demands that we ask for forgiveness before forgetfulness.
Thus Proverbs reminds us, "Blessed is the man that
heareth wisdom, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my
doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the
Lord. But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that
hate me love death".
To listen, to watch, to wait for wisdom, this is the
blessed state to which to aspire. True living is only possible when wisdom
can be identified and apprehended. The favoured ones of God are therefore
capable of discerning true living and have the capacity to portray it in
The final warning of these proverbial words indicates
that the ignoring or rejecting of wisdom does not merely produce
irrationality but complete destruction. Remember that the opposition of a
unity of coherent understanding is disintegratingness - the nihil as
Karl Barth describes it. Thus the chaos which always lies latent in society
does not come about by its own initiative for chaos by its very nature is
incapable of any rational concerted action. Every chaos in society appears
in the absence of wisdom.
Your supreme duty to yourselves and to others is
therefore a serious and high vocation to seek, above all, that God-given
wisdom so that you may creatively and imaginatively govern, remembering the
ever present passive chaos which has the capacity to destroy without doing